Preaching God in a Man-Centered Age

ACT 3 Reformation Conference | Wheaton, Illinois


The following is a lightly edited transcript.

I will begin first with a word about man. Perhaps the title of this message should be a little more crazy and radical than it is. As I was standing in the lobby of the Holiday Inn about 30 minutes ago, watching CNN while they cleaned our room so we could get in, I thought, “You know what the title of this pre-conference should probably be, ‘Preaching God in a Primate-Centered Age.’” Here on CNN is this demonstration against doing experimental drugs on monkeys, precisely because monkeys have no more right or less right to be treated with dignity than you do.

That’s a serious change in the seascape of American culture. We hold these truths to be self-evident and so on that man has this or that right. So preaching in a man-centered age is more serious than we thought it was. It’s really a man/monkey-centered age, and that makes my sense of urgency all the greater. That’s a word on man.

Now for a word on preaching. I love to preach. It is my life. Specifically, I love to preach in the context of the local church, and I love to preach in the context of corporate worship. I would rather preach in my church than do what I’m doing right now any day of the week because I love to preach to a flock of people in worship that build week after week after week upon common visions of who God is. So know that I’m coming to you as utterly and totally biased toward preaching. That’s the word on preaching.

The word on God is that I love God more than I love preaching. I love God as my Creator. I love to contemplate God as my Maker. I love to contemplate God as my Sustainer moment by moment. Life and breath and everything come from him. If my heart keeps beating until the end of this message, it will be a freely given gift of my Maker. I love him for treating me that way and for being that for me.

I love him as my Savior. He has sent his Son into the world to cover all my sins and work out a perfect righteousness for me, imputing it to me through the mere leaning on him alone. I love him as my Keeper and the Portion that I expect to enjoy with ever-increasing gladness forever and ever.

So this is an easy task for me. This is very easy. To extol preaching. To preach God. To preach to people who think monkeys are equal to man. This is not a hard thing to do.

The Place of Preaching in Corporate Worship

I’m going to read 2 Timothy 3:16–4:5. My topic is preaching this great God in the context of corporate worship.

All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.

I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingdom: preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching. For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths. As for you, always be sober-minded, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry. (2 Timothy 3:16–4:5)

Now here’s the question I’m asking: Why does preaching assume such a prominent place in corporate worship? Is this just habit and tradition or is there a warrant for it biblically and theologically? Is it rooted in Scripture? Is it rooted in God?

“Worship hangs on the centrality of the word.”

In this pulpit, Sunday by Sunday, I would guess that almost half of the service is devoted to the exposition of the word of God, as it is in my church. I preach about 40 minutes or so every Sunday following almost as long singing and praying. Why do we do it that way? Why does this task of preaching assume such a prominent role in corporate worship? There are several kinds of answers that you can give.

It’s really two questions when we divide it. The first question is: Why is the word so prominent? Question two is: Why this particular way of speaking or handling the word of God called preaching? Let’s take those one at a time.

1.Why Is the Word So Prominent?

Let’s go straight to the simple straight forward observation of 2 Timothy 3:16: “All Scripture is breathed out by God.” That is an amazing statement. You really need to come to terms with this. Do you believe that? Do you believe that this book, my little NASB updated paperback, is God-breathed? If that is true, everything changes in the world.

This changes the way you do ministry, what you say in ministry, the way you counsel, the way you do funerals, the way you do weddings. This changes the way you stand by hospital beds, the way you live your life, the way you handle your sexuality, the way you handle your money, the way you handle your community life. Everything changes for the saints, and for the pastors especially, if it’s true that the Bible is a God-breathed book. I believe that it is.

God Is Speaking

No prophecy was ever made by an act of human will, but men, moved by the Holy Spirit, spoke, and I believe you could say wrote from God. So my first reason for why the Bible is prominent in worship is that God-breathed this book. Therefore, when the book is read, studied, explained, or heralded, God is speaking if it’s done accurately and handled well.

When God is speaking, God is revealed, and when God is revealed, people worship. You cannot worship apart from communing with God through the word. Worship that undertakes to do an end-run around the revelation of God through the Bible will become defective worship very quickly. Worship hangs on the centrality of the word. So that’s my first reason.

Worship Is a Response to God’s Work

Worship is a response to the work of God, not just the self-revelation through word but also that word describing and doing the work of God. It points to God. It is God’s word, and it gives an insight into his character and personality. But the word doesn’t just portray God, it performs the work of God. The word depicts God and does the work of God. It expresses God’s will, way, and character, and it also affects God’s will and his way in the world.

By faith we understand that the universe was created by the word of God, so that what is seen was not made out of things that are visible. (Hebrews 11:3)

God made this whole world. God made this glorious October fall that makes my spine tingle as I look at the front campus where I had so many spiritual breakthroughs 30 years ago. God made that front campus. God made those yellow trees. God made the sky and the sun. God did that with a word. He just spoke, and it was. And “he upholds the universe by the word of his power” according to Hebrews 1:3.

There’s still a more immediate application to this here in the text. He doesn’t just do his word. Jesus didn’t just do his work by the word, though he did. Fevers were cooled by the word, lepers were cleansed by the word, seas were calmed by the word, and the eyes of the blind were opened by the word. There’s still something more immediately relevant for us in this text, and let me read it to you in 2 Timothy 3:16–17:

All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.

So where does the work of God come from? It comes from the fitting, equipping, transforming power of the word.

In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven. (Matthew 5:16)

That’s worship. Giving glory to God in heaven is worship. Where did it come from? It came from beholding the works of the people of God in the world. And where did the works of the people of God in the world come from? According to 2 Timothy 3:17 they come from being fitted out by the word of God.

So if you want to both preach in the context of worship as well as beget a worshiping people and a worship producing people, you stay with the word. You stay with the word. If you want your people to be so transformed that they live radical, different lives that make the world see something of God and give him glory, then according to this logic moving from 2 Timothy 3:17 to Matthew 5:16 to the glory of God, you stay the with word. You preach the word. You unfold the word and you do it with all your might.

There’s so much more evidence we could give. I’m going to pass over Psalm 1 and Hebrews 4, and just sum up this first point with this: Worship is about knowing, admiring, and savoring God through his self-revelation in his word and by his works which are produced by his word.

Worship comes from seeing God and savoring. Therefore, the word, which is where we see him and how we come to taste, is central. Taste and see. Savor him. Therefore, we stay with the word and make it central.

God’s Word Raises the Dead

That’s only part of the answer to why it’s crucial for worship. It’s also crucial for worship, the centrality of the word, because on the other side of the pulpit there are people who are not going to see God and savor God apart from the quickening work of the Holy Spirit.

There has to be life in the pew. There has to be new birth. There has to be spiritual quickening. The natural man does not receive what passes from one side of the pulpit to the other side. It’s not welcomed. It’s not savored. It’s not understood. It’s considered foolishness, or a stumbling block, unless the Holy Spirit does some transforming new birth. And where does that come from?

You have been born again, not of perishable seed but of imperishable, through the living and abiding word of God . . . this word is the good news that was preached to you. (1 Peter 1:23, 25)

We Reformed types need to be admonished and exhorted something here. I love to stress the sovereignty of God in the conversion of sinners. I love to stress that human beings left to themselves are dead, blind, deaf, hard, and rebellious and that they don’t have the natural capacity to lift the little finger of their hand to make a move toward God apart from grace. I love to exalt that.

However, one can find himself exalting that direct inner, illuminating, life-giving work of the Holy Spirit so much that you can easily neglect that the Holy Spirit has in a most stunning way submitted himself to the word of God in the performance of this life-giving divine act. He always follows around the word of God like a shadow and never does his saving work in front of or without the word.

That is, don’t believe that any pagan tribe that has never heard the gospel has the Holy Spirit regenerating people in it. Don’t believe it. Don’t believe that the Holy Spirit just moves willy-nilly throughout the culture of America saving this one and that one, and maybe the word will catch up someday. That isn’t the way it happens. The Holy Spirit moves like a shadow behind the word of God. There is a theological, biblical reason for that.

And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Helper, to be with you forever. (John 14:16)

He will glorify me, for he will take what is mine and declare it to you. (John 16:14)

The Holy Spirit, in utter allegiance to this mission given him by the Father and the Son, will not quicken a heart to see nothing. He will only quicken hearts to see Christ. Therefore, if Christ is not placarded, the Holy Spirit will not open the eyes of the blind. He is utterly devoted to the glory of the Son and therefore when we preach the Son, the Holy Spirit comes and says, “That is what I want people to see. I will open their eyes to it.”

Therefore, since there has to be life in the pew for there to be worship in the sanctuary, there has to be the word in order for the Holy Spirit to move on the people to reveal the word. There’s a profound reason for why the Spirit, being fully God and very God, will not move on his own in regenerating people without the word declaring the glory of the Son. So preach the word in the center of worship.

2. Why Is Preaching So Prominent?

Now here’s our second question. The first question was: Why is the word central in corporate worship? The second question is: Why is preaching central to corporate worship? Why preaching?

“When God is speaking, God is revealed, and when God is revealed, people worship.”

You could do it a lot of other ways. Put an overhead here, teach, and take questions. You wouldn’t have to preach for 30 minutes. I do that on Wednesday nights for 45 minutes with my people. You could break up into small groups and discuss the Bible for 30 minutes or so. We do that on Sunday night. You could give a lecture with all kinds of historical backgrounds and deal with critical issues in the New Testament. Why this thing called preaching?

A Solemn Oath

I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingdom: preach the word. (2 Timothy 4:1–2)

Let’s just linger over this unparalleled, asseveration, like an oath. Leading up to this simple command, “preach the word,” you have an unparalleled introduction. I solemnly charge you diamarturomai. I solemnly, earnestly call something to witness here. This gets at the earnestness of it all. He wants you to feel the weight of this.

“Timothy, get ready. I’m going to give a big, long, weighty introduction to this teeny-weeny, massive command because I want you to be ready for it. So I solemnly charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus. I am now speaking with God as my witness. He is watching what I say and will call me to account for what I say. If I misstep here, I will be slapped or crushed or damned or something, and therefore I tremble at what I’m about to tell you to do. God is watching me. Christ is watching me. Christ is watching you as you read this. Christ is watching you. God is watching you. When you preach the word, God will be attending. Christ will be attending. You never do anything in your life, Timothy, without God watching and attending. The Creator. The Sustainer. The Redeemer. He is always there. He is always near, always assessing, always judging, always sustaining, and always working. You are never on your own. Don’t think we’re far away from him.”

As if that were not enough, this Christ who is always attending what I say and what you say is the judge of the living and dead. Why say that? Why say that just before you say preach the word?

“Because you, Timothy, and I, Paul, are going to die. We’re going to be judged, and, Timothy, perhaps even more significant than that, when you preach you will be preaching to people who will die. If they’re alive when the judge comes, he’ll judge them as the living, and if they die, he’ll judge them as the dead. They’re all going to be judged by this attending Christ, and therefore he’s watching what you say to them. He’s going to hold you accountable by what you say to them, as to how he will judge.”

I say to my people very often, “I have now dispensed myself as well as I can over this gospel truth. My hands are clean from your blood. You will be asked, unbeliever, on the judgment day, if you remember when Pastor John Piper preached? You were there. You heard him. Why didn’t you believe?”

Brothers, when we speak the word of God, we speak to those who will be judged. The judge will remind them of what they heard in our assemblies and hold them accountable for whether they believed or not.

Again, as if that were not enough, before I tell you to preach the word, I remind you that the one who’s coming to judge the living and the dead, comes and charges us by his appearing and by his kingdom. It’s a very strange accusative there. It just kind of dangles out there in the Greek sentence. With reference to his appearing, with reference to his kingdom, he’s going to come, and when he comes he’s going to vindicate himself as King.

That’s going to be very encouraging for every preacher who realizes that no matter what people say, this Lord that he is heralding is going to appear and establish his kingdom, and every nay-sayer will be put in his place. Also, you obscure, criticized, laughed at, low-paid, faithful servant will be vindicated. So preach the word, he says. Preach it.

The Command to Preach

Now what I see here is an answer to a question that I’ve had. If I do a little word study of preaching, I will study words like kerusso, angello, katangello, and euangolizomai. I do these word studies in the New Testament to find out if there’s a prominent role of preaching, and what I find out is that almost everywhere those words are used for evangelistic preaching. This is preaching in the streets or on the hill, and so I want to know whether there’s a New Testament warrant for preaching in the assembly. In this verse we have something, I think, significant to prove a warrant for preaching in the assembly.

Reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching. (2 Timothy 4:2)

The context here does not look like evangelism. It doesn’t look like evangelism. I think he’s telling Timothy to be faithful in preaching to his people. Reprove them, rebuke them, exhort them, be patient with them, and instruct them.

We at least have a pointer here that preaching is in the context of community life as he writes to Timothy. So my first answer to why we preach in worship is that the Bible says to do it. Preach the word.

Historical Pattern of Preaching

Here’s my second answer. There is a historical warrant for it traced from Ezra, through the synagogue, into the early church.

And Ezra blessed the Lord, the great God, and all the people answered, “Amen, Amen,” lifting up their hands. And they bowed their heads and worshiped the Lord with their faces to the ground. Also Jeshua, Bani, Sherebiah, Jamin, Akkub, Shabbethai, Hodiah, Maaseiah, Kelita, Azariah, Jozabad, Hanan, Pelaiah, the Levites, helped the people to understand the Law, while the people remained in their places. They read from the book, from the Law of God, clearly, and they gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading. (Nehemiah 8:6–8)

This is a model of what came into the synagogue and then came into the early church. This model has been practiced almost without exception for the whole history of the Christian church.

You have a worship setting. You have a book, the word of God. You have appointed, anointed people, Levites in this case. These leaders are helping the people understand. They are giving the sense of the word, and the people are saying “amen, amen,” lifting their hands, and falling on their faces worshiping the Lord.

You come into the New Testament now and you find Jesus going into the synagogue in Luke 4:16. They give him a book, a scroll. He has a providentially assigned text. After reading he proclaims, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” (Luke 4:21). He then begins to make some very radical application that almost gets him thrown off a cliff. So you have the synagogue in Ezra’s experience and Jesus complying with that pattern. Then you come into the book of Acts, and you find it several times.

They went on from Perga and came to Antioch in Pisidia. And on the Sabbath day they went into the synagogue and sat down. After the reading from the Law and the Prophets, the rulers of the synagogue sent a message to them, saying, “Brothers, if you have any word of encouragement for the people, say it.” (Acts 13:14–15)

“If worship is to be worship, there must be a savoring, a tasting and enjoying of God with the heart.”

He then goes on for the next 20 verses with the word of encouragement for the people.

For from ancient generations Moses has had in every city those who proclaim him, for he is read every Sabbath in the synagogues. (Acts 15:21)

Moses is heralded in the synagogue week in and week out. That’s the word used for synagogue preaching, and that’s what the early church walked into. That’s what the apostles walked into. You can imagine those little churches were formed by some notable women and some men coming out of a synagogue and forming a little assembly. What are they going to do? They’re going to do something like that.

So another reason besides the fact that we’re commanded to preach in the context of worship in 2 Timothy 4:2 is that the pattern of history suggests that this is what we should do.

Expository Exultation Shows and Rejoices in God

This is the most basic argument for preaching. This helps me as I have any kind of self-questioning about whether my calling is appropriate in devoting so much of my energy and so much of my life to biblical exposition called preaching on Sunday morning. It’s a theological reason that holds me fast.

I’m going to quote Jonathan Edwards here, who has taught me these things more powerfully than anyone else. This is a quote from one of his miscellanies, namely, number 448, and I’ll just tell you so that you’ll listen carefully that these sentences are as foundational to my theology as anything anybody else out of the Bible has ever written.

God glorifies himself toward the creature in two ways. One, by appearing to their understanding. Two, in communicating himself to their hearts and in their rejoicing and delighting in and enjoying the manifestations which he makes of himself.

God is glorified not only in his glories being seen, but by his glory being rejoiced in. When those that see it delight in it, God is more glorified than if they only see it. His glory is then received by the whole soul, both by the understanding and by the heart.

Edwards shows that owing to the very nature of God as one who is knowable and enjoyable — the very nature of God as knowable with the mind and enjoyable with the heart — demands that worship be shaped in those two ways. There must be in worship a seeing of God for who he really is through the mind and the exercise of understanding. Then, if worship is to be worship, there must be a savoring, a tasting and enjoying of God with the heart.

Head and the Heart

If you separate these, you do not have biblical worship. You have either emotionalism or intellectualism. The -ism on the end of those two words means intellect minus the balancing enjoyment of God or emotion minus the grounding of the emotion in the truth of God. Our great calling is to see that our church does not do that.

Many churches are way too intellectualistic in the Reformed community. Scared to death of emotion. But many charismatics have simply lost their heads. They have lost their heads. It’s a very sad thing when a church loses its head or loses its heart. Over and over the Bible calls us: Think on these things. Consider Christ. Meditate on the law of the Lord. Remember his mighty works of old. Also, just as often and probably more often: rejoice, fear, mourn, delight, hope, be glad, rejoice, and come with singing into his presence.

Now, what’s that got to with preaching? Everything. Preaching is the one form of speech designed by God to perform both acts of glorifying God in one moment. Preaching is the exposition of the truth of God that he might be seen for who he really is and the exaltation over the truth of God so that both the preacher and the people might be caught up in appropriate emotional responses to it.

Therefore, my definition of preaching is expository exultation. Not exposition without exultation and not exultation without exposition. My job as I stand in the pulpit is to make sure that I speak understandable, mind-enlightening, Bible-saturated truth so that my people grow in a coherent view of biblical doctrine. I also need to do it in a way that they can see it sets me on fire and changes the way I parent, changes the way I love Noël, and changes the way I love food or not.

It changes the way I handle my money and changes the way I delight or not in all this beautiful creation. Biblical doctrine is the center of my heart and my being. Preaching cultivates that and then builds a worship service that supports that. This means it is going to be vital, vibrant, emotional, textually orthodox, and biblically saturated.

The word in 2 Timothy 4:2 is, when it says preach the word, the word is keruxon. The word isn’t didaxon. The word is keruxon. That word, kerusso, means to herald or announce. “Hear ye, hear ye. The King has a word for us this morning. He is God and there is no other. He is the Savior. He has declared an amnesty for all those who will lay down their arms of rebellion, to all who sign their names to the amnesty. Receive the righteousness he’s provided in his Son. Yield up yourselves to the living God and be reckoned righteous.”

He has an announcement to make. Preaching that just explains a word or tells a story creates a whole different atmosphere than hear ye, hear ye, hear ye.

Expository Exultation to Any Number

You might be sitting there thinking, “This guy preaches to 1,000 or 1,500 people. He does that when he’s standing at a pulpit in a big room. I preach to 50 people. It’s not the same.” I don’t buy it. I don’t buy it.

In my church there are people with allergies so severe that we have tried now for years to have a scent free service, a fragrance-free service, for them in the first hour. However, some of them are still so ill that we’ve made a room downstairs for them now and put a TV down there. Even that doesn’t work, so I went to speak to them at their home. There were twelve people there.

“God is gloriously enjoyable with the heart, and we are commanded more often to enjoy him than to understand him.”

I sat like Jesus to preach. Jesus read the text and sat down to preach. That’s a good exercise sometimes. I sat on the edge of the chair, and I didn’t cross my legs. I did bounce from time to time. I loved it.

I know you can preach to twelve people. You don’t shout as loud, of course. Have you ever heard Alexander Scourby read the Bible? That man, with a very small decibel range, can communicate the shouting of the Israelites or the whispering of God. He just varies a little bit because you can do things with your voice that communicates passion. There’s a way to do it with passion, and it is preaching. It is a combination of clear-headed exposition with passionate love for the God and the truth that you are expositing.

Preaching Leads to Worship

I close now by just reminding us of what worship is, who God is, and pleading with you to pick up worship as the central work of your community and preaching as the central work of worship. God is gloriously understandable in measure through a glass darkly. God is gloriously enjoyable with the heart, and we are commanded more often to enjoy him than to understand him.

Therefore worship, which is to give glory to God, Edwards says, must both see him and savor him. Preaching is the kind of communication that embodies that, I believe, better than any other kind.